By Janet Allison, https://www.boysalive.com/
If you are raising a boy, it is almost guaranteed that at some point in his young life, he will throw things, yell, hit, scream “I hate you,” and turn everything into a gun.
Does that mean he’ll grow up to be aggressive or violent?
Or will he grow up knowing that you ‘get him’ and can respond to his big emotions in a healthy and positive way?
Many parents (especially moms) are surprised when their sweet little baby suddenly becomes a young boy who is defiant, reactive, and physically angry. It can feel scary and overwhelming. And as your boy grows bigger and stronger, it can feel dangerous.
Society is still teaching boys that anger is one of the few emotions they are “allowed” to have. Boys can be angry but not scared, embarrassed, afraid, or overwhelmed.
Counteracting this message means talking about feelings – at every age – so he learns to recognize and express the full range of his positive and negative feelings. Many boys and men struggle to even identify how they’re feeling. Putting what he feels into words and then expressing that feeling in an acceptable way can be daunting to him. That’s why adults must be his guide to building a robust emotional vocabulary.
Why movement is key
Boys typically gain fluency in language one to 1.5 years later than girls, and even then, they don’t tend to use as many descriptive words, which complicates the process of identifying and expressing feelings.
What will help you more than anything is understanding that before boys can recognize and talk about their feelings – they need to move their bodies. When a boy-body is in motion, his brain is in motion. Everything he learns, every feeling he feels, everything he wants to express – is through his body. Because he is “all movement all the time,” it is important to include many opportunities to move throughout the day.
Understanding that when his body is physically active, his brain is also active, is perhaps the Holy Grail of parenting boys.
When he is physically active, his brain can find words and connect experiences and emotions to those words.
We all have it. Boys and men just happen to have a whole lot more. Testosterone turns on the genes that trigger characteristics like: a desire to move, tracking and chasing moving objects, testing his own strength (and challenging you), playing at fighting off enemies, risk-taking, competition, and rough-and-tumble play. Understanding his need for physically engaging play and adapting home and school environments to this dynamic need helps improve behavior and cooperation.
Why does he make everything into a gun?
Boys love the excitement and energy of gunplay. For him, holding or shooting a gun doesn’t have any relation to violence as adults think of it. It is okay to put rules in place around gunplay – make sure to be firm, consistent, and kind. If the rule is “no weapons,” they may try to get around it by making anything into a gun – toast, fingers, or sticks… then the rule can be “no pointing.”
Offer an alternative to gunplay that includes excitement, intrigue, and adventure. For example, arctic explorers stranded on an iceberg, floating down the Amazon surrounded by poisonous snakes…you get the idea.
When his behavior is out of bounds, take these steps to be his calm and confident guide: Many young boys don’t yet have the words to express their feelings. Boys are reactive and impulsive – reacting with a quick punch when someone bumps into him. He may yell and scream when he feels overwhelmed and out of options.
Here’s what you can do:
1. Understand your own relationship with anger (including your family legacy of anger). This can be intensely deep work; make sure you have the support to work through this for yourself. It’s important that your parenting partner has worked to resolve their feelings, too.
2. Help him recognize and identify ALL the feelings in his body. For young boys – use animals or other imagery, so it makes sense to him: “Do you feel like a volcano ready to explode?” or “Do you feel like a frisky puppy right now?” This is the first step to helping him learn where those feelings live in his body – and how to acceptably express them. You are expanding his emotional vocabulary.
3. Create an “anger corner” together where he can get those feelings out of his body: punch a pillow, hit a tree with a stick, run around the block, jump on the trampoline, hit a box with a bat. Ask him what would feel best and create it together.
4. Teach him the Rules of Expressing Anger (boys love rules): You can’t hurt yourself; you can’t hurt others; you can’t hurt property.
Learning to express big emotions is a developmental process requiring your patience and understanding of his development. Anger is the most challenging because it is loud and ugly, and handling it (or not) may lead you to believe you’re failing as a parent. You aren’t. Hang in there, ask for help, and give yourself a break. You can do this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Janet Allison is the Founder of Boys Alive! And the co-host of the ON BOYS Parenting Podcast. She has been helping parents and teachers navigate their boys’ big emotions for over 20 years. Her passion is helping you be the calm, confident parent needed in these uncertain times to grow better boys and stronger communities for tomorrow. Find out more below: